The Grim Brilliance of “The Leftovers”

wasting.breath“The Leftovers” is a terrible show and that it deserved to be canceled after one season.

But I can’t stop watching it. It’s too satisfying.

On a metaphorical level, the show is about crumbling, entrenched institutions. It’s probably what the apocalypse will really look like; everybody pretending everything is normal.

But on a more immediate, emotional level, it’s misery porn custom made for smug atheists. Every character on the show is so depressed happiness doesn’t seem possible. The show’s God is either dead or incredibly cruel.

Its darkness ends when the credits roll. The gloom is consequence free; it’s not the news and it’s not your life. You watch it, say “too bad for you, buddy,” and forget it when it’s done. Once it’s over, the long scenes of mournful faces scored by piano music take on a twisted humor.

The show takes place some after a Rapture-like event that magically zapped away two percent of the population. No one knows why it happened. No one knows why the people who were zapped away were chosen.

When it was first advertised, I assumed The Leftover’s Rapture would be like the one in the hideous, Left Behind book series. I thought it would follow some sociopathic reading of the hostile gibberish in the Book of Revelations, pitting good against evil at the end of civilization.

Nope! The Leftovers rapture is an evangelist’s worst nightmare. Good Christians were not whisked away. There’s no decades-long battle between the second coming of Christ and Satan. The disappeared weren’t pure Christians or even necessarily good people from saints. They ranged from shitty people to merely OK. Almost all of them had baggage.

In the Leftovers, Revelations went off book.  The church didn’t stop the disappearances and still can’t explain them. Religion was powerless when presented with one of its main tasks: dealing with Armageddon. At the start of the series,Christopher Eccleston’s small town minister’s church is crumbling from lack of followers. He investigates and publicizes the sins of the disappeared. He wants to prove God didn’t save them.  If they had, why would he still be around? And if God didn’t, who did?

“Who did” is a question I expect the show will tease throughout its run without answering. The show implies that God, or some kind of pro-Christian supernatural force, exists in its universe. Supernatural forces seem to aid Eccleston in his quest to keep his church. But they don’t help a thief accosts him in a parking lot. Eccleston, supposedly a man of God, has to beat the man, possibly to death, to keep the money. If God’s directly intervening on his behalf, He’s got a dark sense of humor.

There’s more evidence the show’s God is scoffing and cruel. After the fight, Eccleston is knocked unconscious while defending a cult member from a drive-by hate criminal. He wakes to find that the cult he defended has bought the church from under him.

When the credits rolled, my wife and I asked how the show would top that bummer. Then the next week they had an episode about his sister, who lost her husband and two elementary school children in the rapture event. I wanted to applaud. They did it. They found the sadder idea.

Just as religion did nothing to predict it or prevent the Rapture, law enforcement and government are powerless against it. Cops patrol the streets but are just empty uniforms. Politicians and bureaucrats pretend they’re in charge but secretly turn to fringe elements for guidance.

Regular folks without any illusions that they ever had any power join and start cults. The show’s world is lousy with them. Federal agents raid a rural cult with a Koresh-like leader and armed guards on the first episode. Another background group paint targets on their foreheads and forgo shoes. But the show focuses most on the Guilty Remnant, which have their headquarters in the show’s fictional upstate Hudson River Valley Town of Mapleton.

For fictional cults, the Guilty Remnant is unique in its silence. The senior members never speak. Their belief system drips out in the handwritten notes the members use to communicate with each other and the outside world. Otherwise, they chain smoke and stalk people to gain more members.

They wear white, presumably, to show they have drained the color out of their lives. I think they just smoke because it’s cool.

Justin Theroux’s sheriff character is an alcoholic and a bully. He may be a spiraling lunatic. But it’s possible his biggest mistake may be treating the Guilty Remnant humanely. As they demonstrate, most obviously, in the last episode, they are hardcore dickheads who do not deserve humane treatment.

The last episode was probably the worst one the show has presented thus far. The GR put their big plan in motion and it was kind of a letdown. I’m not going to give anything away, but I feel like the low-key awfulness they previously maintained victim to the needs for TV plot movement. The status quo was too dramatically inert for TV producers’ comfort. I wish they hadn’t made that decision because the cult was more compelling when their plans weren’t clear.

I suspect the second season will be terrible. They’re going to introduce mysteries and set up conflicts and I’m going to regret ever liking it. The appeal of the show is the grim rut the show runners are trying to dig out of. Hopefully writers have some real heavy bummers planned. Fingers crossed.

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